|30 October 2010
British burial law is threatening archaeological research
According to experts, the severe restrictions on scientists' freedom to study bones and skulls from ancient graves are putting archaeological research in Britain at risk. The growing dispute concerns controversial legislation introduced by the Ministry of Justice in 2008, which decreed that all human remains discovered during digs in Britain must be reburied within two years. This decision means that scientists will have insufficient time to carry out proper studies of any pieces of ancient skeleton they uncover. Key information about British history will be lost as a result of this new legislation.
"Suppose one of our palaeontologists found the remains of a million-year-old human," postulates archaeologist Mike Pitts of the Stonehenge Riverside Project. "It would be a truly wonderful discovery and would transform our knowledge of our predecessors. But, according to the Ministry of Justice ruling, we would have to take that fossil - when we had only just begun to study it - and put it back in the soil. It is utterly absurd."
Scientists are already facing the prospect of having to rebury a cache of human bone fragments. The remains of more than 50 individuals were excavated in 2008 at a site known as Aubrey Hole 7, a part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project. Team members, including Pitts, had hoped that they would be able to study these fragments to acquire new knowledge about the people who built and used Stonehenge. With a preliminary study of the 50,000 bone fragments being expected to run from 2008 until 2015, but as the current issue of British Archaeology reveals, they are faced with the prospect of having to rebury the remains when their research has only just begun. "We have applied for an extension," added Pitts. "We may get one, but even if we did, it would only be for a couple more years. Then the bones would have to be reburied."
British Ministry of Justice officials decided that the Burial Act of 1857 was the appropriate legislation for controlling archaeological digs at burial grounds. They dictated that archaeologists could dig up bones and skulls, but insisted that they would have to rebury them within two years time 'in an accepted place of burial' - a cemetery for example - while the excavations would need to be screened from the public. "It is utterly inappropriate to use this law to control archaeology," stated Pitts.
The requirement for reburial within two years is not the only issue that vexes archaeologists, however. The ministry's requirement that any excavation of human remains must be screened from the public has also caused great displeasure.
"If you dig up old burial grounds and then screen your dig from local people, they become suspicious," said Dr Duncan Sayer of the University of Central Lancashire, who is currentlyleading an excavation at a Saxon cemetery at Oakington in Cambridgeshire. "They think you are doing something sinister. The ironic thing is that the government has insisted on the public being given access to scientific research and for there to be openness between scientists and the public. But now they are preventing us from doing that."
Edited from guardian.co.uk (10 October 2010)
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